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Outlandish Lawyer Gets No Objections From His Many Staid Clients

Business -- April 2, 1997
By MARY FLOOD Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

IRVING -- Jim Karger started out in 1976 as a button-down, union-fighting lawyer. Two decades later, he's still a corporate labor lawyer, but he's hardly button-down. In fact, in the group photo on his law firm's 1997 calendar, he's wearing a gold hoop earring -- and no shirt at all.

Mr. Karger, it's safe to say, isn't like most corporate labor lawyers. In his speeches to management groups, for which he commands $1,500 to $3,000 a pop, he says what few others would. A seminar on disability law is titled: "Excuse Me, But I Notice You Have Only One Leg." His speech on mental illness is called: "Are You Mental, Or What?" In "Hiring: Your First Chance To Blow It," Mr. Karger talks about why not to hire violent felons. And in "Happy Birthday, You're Fired," he tells how to legally lay off older workers.

Every week, he tests the boundaries of good taste in a local newspaper column filled with liquor-laced stories and fantasies that rarely have anything to do with the law. Even the newsletter his firm sends to clients is brimming with attitude.
So why do such staid corporate management clients as Coca-Cola bottlers, the Adolphus Hotel and Nissan and Chrysler dealerships tolerate such irreverence in their labor lawyer? Because it's a key to his success. In all, Mr. Karger has waged more than 60 antiunion campaigns, and he has won them all.

Respect and Renown

In the process, the 45-year-old Mr. Karger has also won respect and renown among his Dallas-area peers, some of whom say he's the best at what he does. Clients who don't get his humor still appreciate his results, and he recently sealed a deal to give more than 50 speeches nationwide for a big fast-food company.

"We use Jim because he understands more than just the law," says Ted Maisch, general manager of Northeast Mississippi Coca-Cola Bottling Inc. in Starkville, one of several bottlers nationwide that Mr. Karger does work for. "He understands people and the bottom line as well." Adds Hershell L. Barnes Jr., head of the labor-law division of Haynes & Boone LLP, one of the largest law firms in Texas: I don't know a labor lawyer who's better at what he does."

Mr. Karger isn't the kind of lawyer who gets his clients out of trouble. Rather, he considers his job to be keeping his clients from getting into labor trouble in the first place. That's why he advises clients to call him before firing anyone and doesn't hesitate to tell them when he thinks they're being petty and should leave an employee alone. Litigation, he argues, is a lose-lose proposition, because it costs so much just to go to court. If a client's case actually leads to trial, Mr. Karger has a litigator from outside his firm handle it.

"The only way to win is to never play," Mr. Karger says. "I'm selling sleep insurance. I teach my clients how to run their business so the employees are happy and safe and the management can sleep at night."

He does this by taking what can be the driest of subjects, the arcana of labor law, and expounding on them in a way his clients won't soon forget. Mr. Maisch calls it "shock-jock style." "In our sexual-harassment training," Mr. Maisch says, "Jim used more profanity than I've ever heard in a seminar. It kept people riveted."

Locker-Room Example

Indeed, it makes crystal clear to clients just how offensive certain language and actions can be, and how a jury would respond to anyone who practiced them in the office, says Ellen Beckert, director of corporate development for Freeman Cos. of Dallas, a convention-services company. She recalls Mr. Karger mesmerizing a Phoenix hotel conference room of 130 top Freeman managers from 23 offices nationwide with a pointed lesson on not just how, but also why to avoid a sexual-harassment claim. Imagine, he said, being in a courtroom and having to recount in that sterile setting a trifle of locker-room humor about a female colleague.

He went on to calculate for the audience how many millions of eligible women there are in the world, and suggested to male managers that they search somewhere other than the workplace for a date, Ms. Beckert recalls. She says she was so impressed with the presentation that Freeman will seek Mr. Karger's advice again. "He got to people who don't normally get it," Ms. Beckert says.

Adds Stephen Key, a lawyer at Mr. Karger's firm: "This law firm may be more like a cult than a law practice. Jim tends to captivate our clients."

Striking Out on His Own

Mr. Karger wasn't born antiunion, but he learned the ropes early on. The son of a Ralston Purina Co. manager who moved around the country a lot, Mr. Karger grew up listening to complaints about union featherbedding and workers sleeping on the job. He left home at age 17, paying his way through North Texas State University by playing and teaching guitar. He got out of the draft by applying to Southern Methodist University Law School, and became a union fighter with a big New Orleans firm after graduating. A series of career moves brought him back to Dallas.

About 10 years ago, he formed his own firm, employing two lawyers, one the son of union laborers. The firm's client roster now totals more than 100. Atop its stationery is the Karger & Associates motto: "Limited to the representation of management."

Around 1990, about the time his 20-year marriage was ending in divorce, Mr. Karger started turning his firm's staid client newsletter into an outlet for Hunter S. Thompson-like ramblings. (The similarity is no accident: Mr. Karger is a big fan of the gonzo journalist. A few years ago at a Colorado cafe near Mr. Thompson's home in Woody Creek, Colo., Mr. Karger tipped a waiter $8 for a $2 piece of pie so he could get the writer's address. Mr. Karger paid homage by driving by, though he didn't ring the bell.)

The newsletter, LaborFax, is filled with news of court cases and changes to laws, sprinkled with serious but punchy advice. It goes out by fax and e-mail to more than 1,000 readers. Sometimes, of course, his observations are more punchy than serious. On the government's naturalizing immigrants without background checks he writes: "They were apparently able to make use of a rare loophole engraved on the Statue of Liberty: 'Give me your tired, your poor, your criminally insane.' "

Of President Clinton bragging about the Family and Medical Leave Act, Mr. Karger wrote: "Most employers puked in their beer, recalling the relentless record-keeping and hideous intrusions required by this law."

Yet even the transformed newsletter wasn't big enough to contain all of Mr. Karger's thoughts. So in 1994, he began unleashing his vitriol in a weekly column, "Report From the Front," in the tiny Las Colinas Business News. The columns, a mix of fact, fiction, fantasy and usually a message, pay more tribute to Mr. Thompson, bubbling with references to quality whiskey, pliant women, bad flight attendants, vomiting and DSM-IV -- The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition -- the bible of psychiatric diagnosis. The columns also get sent to many clients.

In one fantasy column, Mr. Karger describes a supposed encounter with an airport ticket agent when he tries to board 90 seconds before takeoff: "A scuffle ensued, and I snapped off her tensile bangs like a rusty piano wire, and locked her in a full-nelson, but she rabbit-punched me in the kidney, as they're trained to do, which dropped me to my knees like a sack of dead cats." The message: Airline service ain't what it used to be.

'A Psychiatric Anomaly'

People who know Mr. Karger agree he's liable to be misunderstood. "He's a synthesis of Jimi Hendrix and H.L. Mencken, both of whom would probably be insulted at the comparison," says John A. Jacobs, a Plano psychologist and a good friend of Mr. Karger's. Mr. Jacobs calls Mr. Karger "something of a psychiatric anomaly."

Adds Mr. Barnes, the labor lawyer at Haynes & Boone: "There are any number of people who would not hire Karger if all they knew about was the calendar, LaborFax and his column. But I don't think there would be anyone disinclined to hire him if they knew him."

In fact, his clients say that bit of eccentricity is what makes Mr. Karger so good. Albert Clark, president of C.C. Clark Inc., a Starkville beverage business that owns Mr. Maisch's bottling company, paid Mr. Karger more than $100,000 in 1990 to help rout out a union, and thinks Mr. Karger was worth every penny. "He's got a knack for getting into the heads of a labor force," Mr. Clark says.

Hank Biedenharn, who has retained Mr. Karger since the 1970s, says that when Mr. Karger went to work on a case, "It was like he was living with you," During one anti-labor siege, Mr. Karger actually did stay in his house, says Mr. Biedenharn, who retired in 1996 when he sold his three-state Coca-Cola bottling operation. Mr. Biedenharn still keeps a framed copy of a letter signed by 200 employees who rejected a union organization effort after Mr. Karger came to town. At the time, workers were angry about wages, benefits and supervisory treatment. By interviewing supervisors, Mr. Karger got to the heart of employee beefs, got management to respond and turned workers against the union.

Naturally, those who go up against Mr. Karger view him differently. Barry Strange, president of the Pine Bluff, Ark., local of the United Paperworkers International union, dismisses him as a meddler. "He was a hired gun out of Texas who wasn't interested in the working people who make a living with their sweat," says Mr. Strange, who dealt with Mr. Karger during two union election fights in 1994 and 1995 at a Pine Bluff steel-cord plant.

'There Are No Rules'

If there's no method to Mr. Karger's madness, there's at least a purpose. Two years ago, he used a military Humvee as a backdrop for the law-firm calendar photo, in which his employees posed in fatigues with semiautomatic weapons and ammo.

"All this is disarming to other lawyers," Mr. Karger says. "Some lawyers want to be seen in the same position as doctors are with patients. This kind of thing assists in disintegrating those barriers" between lawyer and client.

This year's calendar motif: biker gang, with Mr. Karger and associates again looking anything but disarming. Mr. Karger himself is wearing a Spandex weightlifter's suit. Enclosed with the calendars was the official law-firm tattoo -- a rub-on affair designed by Mr. Karger's wife, the firm's graphic artist -- featuring a lizard head on a female human body.

Mr. Karger's clients fall into two camps when it comes to his antics. At businesses where his calendars are up in the coffee room, copier room, women's rest room or an office, he's seen as one provocative lawyer. "It has a stunning effect," says Dean G. Popps, president of DFW Teleport Ltd., an Irving satellite-uplink company. "We show our clients that we have lawyers whose rules are: There are no rules."

But at offices where the calendar stays in the mailing tube or goes home to the 13-year-old's room, Mr. Karger is seen as a good lawyer with a sense of humor probably worth ignoring. Some have called the firm to say "Take me off the mailing list, this guy's insane."

"I use the calendar as a desk blotter," says Mr. Clark. "If I put it up, I'd have to explain to people that this is the guy who does legal work for me at a high price."
Still, Mr. Karger and his associates at the law firm swear they've never lost a client because of his wild side.

Mr. Karger says he expects his work to stay fresh long enough to produce several more years of calendars. His associate Mr. Key, who likes diving off boats and out of airplanes, is lobbying for a parachuting theme next year.

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